After 13 full-length studio albums and countless EPs, live albums, and compilations, They Might Be Giants is still going strong. Recently, John Flansburgh and John Linnell released two albums, The Else and Here Come the 123s, recorded 14 songs for the new Dunkin’ Donuts advertising campaign, and regularly air podcasts for their adult and kids audiences via their website.
Through the years, Flansburgh and Linnell have dabbled with technology, beginning in the 1980s with Dial-A-Song. When someone would call the number, a machine would automatically answer the land-line and play a pre-recorded song. The device was set up in Flansburgh’s apartment after Linnell broke his wrist in a biking accident, rendering him unable to play the accordion. They advertised their number in local newspapers, ultimately catching the attention of Bar/None Records, with whom they signed.
The spirit of Dial-A-Song lives on through their podcasts, in which the Johns offer rare, demo, and live tracks and remixes for fans. "Dial-A-Song mainly just died a technological death," says John Linnell, one half of TMBG. The pair had a stock of old machines, but had trouble with them. "We’d try to get them repaired but they kept dying and it was like, after twenty years, the things just don’t last forever and eventually, unfortunately, we resigned ourselves to the fact that the Internet had kind of taken over where Dial-A-Song had left off."
Flansburgh and Linnell do their best to cater to their adult and kid fans. Even in 1991, their music was appealing to both groups. In fact, many fans got their first taste of TMBG from an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures in which two of their grown-up songs, "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," were turned into music videos.
The band never set out to make kids music, however. Their first kids album, 2002’s No!, was thought of as a vacation from doing serious work. "We were very surprised when that recording became the most successful project we’d been working on that year. It outsold our grown-up They Might Be Giants albums by a factor of two to one or something like that. So, it suddenly appeared to us that this was a real job and not just a sideline for us. The thing that was successful about that record was that we weren’t thinking of it as some kind of serious chin-stroking music. It was really all about fun and doing something interesting and not feeling like it’s a heavy job. I think that’s why it was successful," Linnell says.
That’s not to say that grown-ups won’t enjoy the kid’s records as well. The essence of their unusual music is instilled in the children’s songs, although the band does hold back quite a bit. "There were a couple we recorded for No! that we realized were just way too creepy and weird to be considered as children’s songs," says Linnell.
Songs from the children’s album certainly have the same TMBG feel that their grown-up albums have. "There’s a track on Here Comes the 123s that was originally going to be an Else song. The drum loop from it was provided by the Dust Brothers and we built up the track on top of that and then, ultimately, it just turned into this song about the number seven without really changing the music at all," explains Linnell. "It seemed liked it would work really well with this lyric about seven. I mean, the lyric could only be for that project, but the music didn’t have to change at all to move from the grown-ups to the kids."
TMBG hasn’t made a complete changeover to kid’s music, as they still enjoy the regular grown-up music.
"The regular albums are, I would say, sort of the essence of what we do. That’s the closest to what we’re about in a sense. Yet, there’s something very light-hearted about doing children’s music that I think frees us up to do things. We don’t feel the pressure of having to have our work compared to the history of rock music when we’re doing kids music. I’m glad we get to do both. I don’t think that one of them is better than the other," explains Linnell.
Even with such a prolific body of work behind them, the duo plans for more releases appealing both to kids and adults. "We’re promoting the 123s now and at some point in the next year, we’ll start planning the next one of those, which will be Here Comes the Morse Code, or something like that," jokes Linnell.
The band is toying around with the idea of exploring science musically for their next album. "We might do something about science. That would definitely be for somewhat older kids. That’s one idea we’ve been floating around. It wouldn’t be high school science, but it would be science that would get younger kids interested in the topic of science. I think that would be a fun project," says Linnell.
As for what they hope people take away from their music, Linnell offers, "I hope people really enjoy it. I think mainly in the past we’ve just written stuff thinking it’s the kind of stuff we would like. And I think that’s mainly it. You get a deep enjoyment where you like it, you like the process, you like listening to it, and you like thinking about it afterward. That’s sort of a secondary thing, but the main thing is that it’s something that’s good enough to think about. Not just enjoy while it’s happening, but it sort of stays in your head," says Linnell As for the children, Linnell says, "I realize that we’re doing educational material, but I really don’t think of it as for that purpose. I think that what we’re doing for kids is really entertainment as well."
For more information about TMBG, visit them online at http://www.theymightbegiants.com.